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In a brave new marketplace struggling to recover from the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008, consumers are increasingly calling the shots by putting their money where their values are.
That’s the bottom-line takeaway from Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), a database that tracks consumer attitudes and behaviors in 17 countries. The BAV includes a quarterly update on how 17,000 U.S. consumers are feeling about hundreds of brands in a variety of industries, including travel.
There’s a lot at stake for travel vendors, destinations and travel agents doing business in what John Gerzema, social theorist and executive chairman of the BAV Consulting Group, describes as a “citizen marketplace” reshaped by the economic crisis. In this new marketplace, Gerzema said, consumers are focusing on quality rather than quantity and they are rewarding companies whose values match their own.
“People are moving from mindless to mindful consumption, and they are placing a much greater emphasis on brands and companies they can rely on — and that reliance isn’t handed out generously,” Gerzema said. “People see their wallet, their pocketbook, as a vote, and they are voting for companies on the basis of whether or not they are delivering the ethical aspects of empathy, trust and integrity.”
The Travel Industry Responds
The shift in consumer buying behavior has prompted many tour operators, hotel companies, cruise lines and destinations to implement environmental, social and philanthropic programs and practices. While travel agents aren’t leading that charge, many are experiencing a bottom-line impact on how today’s more mindful consumers are voting for travel companies with their wallets.
“Clients call every day and ask for vendors like Lindblad and Geographic Expeditions because they know they are about saving the earth,” said Ken Neibaur, manager of Cardoza Bungey Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Palo Alto, Calif. “There is demand, and it’s led by the brands that are most successful in communicating and executing it. They have to be able to stand for it and do it, and they have to communicate concretely how they do it. Clients want to see those values in action, to experience it as part of the trip.”
Neibaur said his clients rarely ask about the corporate values or mission statement of travel vendors.
“What they do talk about is environmental and social responsibility, and that has more to do with the way people consume everything in the world, not just travel,” Neibaur said. “It’s been an emerging force in the way people make travel decisions. There is a lot of demand coming from younger people who are starting to factor these sorts of things into all of their purchase decisions.”
Neibaur said the suppliers driving rather than responding to consumer demand have a strong message about social responsibility and ecological sensitivity.
“The message is, you’ll make the world a better place by traveling with us,” Neibaur said. “That resonates with the consumer and it resonates with the travel advisor. We have a similar mindset. We are also concerned about these things. We want to drive business to suppliers who are championing ecologically sensitive and community-supportive travel, and we are in a position to influence travelers’ choices.”
Traveler Activism in Action
Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Inspirational Journeys LLC, an Ensemble agency in Federal Way, Wash., has had both leisure and corporate clients change their travel plans when a chosen vendor or destination was out of sync with what those clients value.
“We deal with a fairly affluent client base that is pretty into causes that go with the area we live in,” Vaughn said. “We lean a little to the left and we are pretty environmentally conscious. We have our share of tree-huggers, and issues related to water use and habitats are also very important. It affects the way we do business.”
Case in point: After the documentary “Blackfish,” which is critical of using captive sea mammals for entertainment, came out clients who had booked an extended family trip with Vaughn called and directed him to take SeaWorld out of the plans.
“A number of other people told us outright not to even talk to them about SeaWorld,” Vaughn said.
According to Vaughn, the documentary was one cause and the location of his agency was another.
“We have Orca everywhere so it’s a much bigger issue here than in other areas,” he said.
Vaughn’s agency has also seen traveler activism in his corporate business. A large meetings and incentive group and a business meeting pulled out events booked in Arizona due to state legislation affecting gay and Hispanic populations.
“We had people react very negatively to activities in Arizona, particularly in response to anti-gay legislation in the state,” Vaughn said. “It kind of took me by surprise. This is a company that’s pretty diverse and the leaders of that company were personally offended by the way Arizona handled it. Their resistance wasn’t based on any personal orientation to the gay movement to my knowledge. The person I’ve dealt with for years said, ‘I just don’t like what they do there and I’m not going to take my company to a state that operates that way.’”
Vaughn also had a business client cancel a meeting booked in Phoenix and move the venue to San Diego.
“They are a private business but they have a lot of Hispanic employees,” Vaughn said. “They said, ‘We don’t agree with their politics. They are free to do what they want in Arizona and we are free to take our business where we want.’”
In both those situations, Vaughn said he felt he was dealing with company representatives that did not have an ax to grind.
“They were just decent people who stood up and said, ‘we don’t like how they are going about this and we are not going to be part of it,’” said Vaughn.
The experiences Vaughn and Neibaur had with clients choosing vendors and destinations based on their own personal values reflects BAV data showing a big shift in the attributes consumers want from a brand they do business with. In the most recent survey, kindness and empathy increased 391 percent as the most important attributes companies and brands can offer their customers, after product quality.
Vaughn sees his agency’s experience as part of an evolutionary trend that will eventually embrace the majority of businesses in the travel industry, including travel agents.
“As our business has evolved and society and culture here in the United States evolves, more and more people are much more attuned to what’s going on in the world and they are much more willing to stand up and take a position where maybe a few years ago they wouldn’t have,” Vaughn said. “It’s a generally higher level of consciousness.”